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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The meaning of universities



A university is a part of a formal package of our modern education system. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a university is a high-level institution in which students study for degrees and where academic research is carried out. ​
Etymologically, the word ‘university’ is from the Old French word ‘universite’ and from Latin meaning ‘the whole’. The modern European languages use the same word “university” to refer to the institution albeit with different spellings and pronunciations.
According to the origin of the word ‘university’, the first ‘university’ was founded in the Medieval Age in Bologna (1088), followed by Oxford (1096), Paris (1150) and Cambridge (1209).
In actual fact, UNESCO recognizes the Medina of Fez as a World Heritage Centre and home to the University of al-Qarawiyyin (859), the oldest university in the world, given the fact that it was the first institution to award degrees.
During that time, some similarities developed. Religion played a key role in​ universities in both Arabic and European traditions where the control and influence of religion over academic programmes was strong. Research did not​ play a crucial role in defining the purpose of a university at the time.
There was also similar conceptual meanings of a university. As “university” in English semantically means “universal” covering all kinds of knowledge, jami‘ah in Arabic also refers to a place of different kinds of knowledge and where different groups of people gather. It has been said that the literal meaning of jami‘ah (gatherer) is the translation of the word “universal”.
What is a university all about? There are similar academic elements between a university and a school. There are leaders, teachers, masters, students, administrators, support staff, curriculums and assessments where teaching and learning takes place, in dealing with knowledge and truth.
However, there are activities that make a university differ from a school, which are supervision, research, publications and presentations in conferences.
What do we really need from a university? Is it about lifelong learning or seeking for knowledge and truth? Or is it about finding a career and future development?
Since Humboldt, a Prussian educational philosopher proposed the idea of mixing teaching and research in 1810, the meaning of universities in Europe, the United States and other countries all over the world has been associated with a scientific approach in teaching and research.
It is true that to gain knowledge and truth systematically, we have to teach and do research in a scientific manner. The teaching and research areas offered in universities are closely related to the interests of the society in terms of national, economic and political interests.​
Although the meaning of universities has been debated endlessly, we must have a clear picture about the purpose of a university. The university is a place for the teaching of universal knowledge and the cultivation of curiosity.
Nevertheless, a university is also for finding solutions to problems, the critical appreciation of achievements and the training of the mind at the highest level for intellectual purposes. All these relate historically and epistemologically to the basic principle of philosophy which are love of wisdom and seeking for​ truth.
In our Malaysian context, universities are associated with an ivory tower where gurus teach and research centres produce research, to help gain knowledge and transform the nation.
The establishment of the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in 1958 followed by a number of other universities until today shows that a university has an important meaning in the Malaysian context.
The purpose of the university in Malaysia can be divided into three perspectives: economics, politics, and collaboration. The role of the university in particular is about the education and training of personalities in forming a civilised society for the sake of the nation.
As described by Brennan, King and Lebeau (2004), a university is also about providing a ‘protected space’ – intellectual, temporal, physical and political – to allow people, individually and collectively, to think the unthinkable, to push the limits of the possible, to reflect and re-assess.
Not quite an ‘ivory tower’ perhaps, but a safe environment set apart from the interests, orthodoxies and pressures of the day.
In order to fulfil the needs of people and the needs of students, universities offer various areas and levels of programmes, from soft sciences to hard sciences. Public universities offer specific programmes which are supported by the government while private universities are funded by government-linked companies and private companies.
The current programs offered are better than those of the last ten years, especially in connection with the expertise that we have. However, the programs offered cannot cater to the needs of the nation as a result of budget cuts and financial problems.
The critical areas to be offered are medicine, transportation and infrastructure. On one hand, the needs of the people include industrial, employable and economic skills, and to fulfil this, the number of universities is being reduced whilst the number of polytechnics is being increased.​​
On the other hand, the needs of students are indicated by the encouragement for them to continue pursuing their studies at universities for lifelong learning.
To cultivate an intellectual tradition, we must have a strong academic culture. Some of the main challenges in our academic culture relate to university autonomy, political interference, academic freedom, captive minds, academic dependency, local knowledge, lack of systematic knowledge development and market forces.

MUNIF ZARIRRUDDIN FIKRI NORDIN is Associate Professor of Linguistics at Universiti Utara Malaysia and a researcher for the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) project on autonomy in higher education institutions in Malaysia.​- Mkini

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